Jazz legend recounts the gigs with John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana and much more!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 9, 2010
Ralphe Armstrong got an early start in the music business. After his classical training at Interlochen School of Fine Arts in Michigan for four years, Ralphe, while still a teenager, was hired by John McLaughlin to perform in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Armstrong has also done countless gigs, tours and recording sessions with Frank Zappa, Jean-Luc Ponty, Carlos Santana, Geri Allen, Lenny White, Narada Michael Walden, Earl Klugh, Eddie Harris, Don Sebesky, the London Symphony Orchestra and many, many others. Ralphe currently tours and performs with saxophonist James Carter and teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing and how you became a bass player.
RA: I started on the bass at the age of 7. Before that, I started on the violin at the age of 5, but I didn’t like the sound it made. I could never get a real good tone out of it. It was always squeaking. So, one Saturday afternoon, I went to see my uncle. His name was Lee Crockett and we called him L.C. We went to his place and he was a real sharp dresser. All the guys back then wore suits and ties. He was just a sharp guy. And he drove a pink Cadillac. He worked for Cadillac Motorcar Company and he had all these new Cadillacs. And he used to give me vanilla ice cream all the time. He lived in this flat down by Wayne State University and back then it was just so nice in Detroit. He had this blonde Kay bass and when I heard the sound of it, it just floored me! It had such a deep tone. It looked like a big violin and, you know, when you’re a little kid, you want the biggest thing you can get because you’re little. And when I heard that sound, Jon, it just tripped me out and I told my dad, I said, “Dad, I want to play the bass! I want to be like Uncle L.C.” I bugged him so much. I used to pull on his pant leg! And finally, he got tired of me bugging him.
My dad was a pretty good craftsman with wood and things like that. He was an artist, too, and a violinist. And he made me a bass. It was a square shape with a round hole like a guitar. He found an old German neck and put it on top of the square body. I think it was made out of pinewood. At first it was too big, so he cut it down so I could play it. And it had an old peg at the bottom. And that’s how I got into the bass.
At first, I played nothing but blues and string music from the ’30s. Then, when I was about 11, my brother had a group called the Eldorados. He had these guys come over with electric instruments and the sounds coming out of them just floored me. Matter of fact, the guy who played the bass had a Gibson bass and he played with his thumb. I was a kid and I’d never seen anyone play like that before. He had a pipe in his mouth and I thought he was playing the tuba or something, but it was a bass! An EB3 or something made like a 335. The sound just floored me. So I bugged my dad again and he went and found me a Framus bass, made in Germany. It had a mahogany neck and was made like a Fender Jazz bass, with a very small neck. And that was my first electric bass.
FBPO: How did you end up at Interlochen?
RA: I got a scholarship. My music teacher at the time was Alfred Hickman. He taught Miles Davis in St. Louis. He would tell me about Miles and how Miles was his paperboy and how he would teach him, you know. So, that’s how I got my scholarship at Interlochen. Now, here we go again to my father. He went out to Adelson’s Music and bought me a King Moretone bass. Matter of fact, Ron Carter had a King. There are still a lot of Kings out there. They’re very good basses. I think they go back to the late 1890s.
FBPO: What were your musical aspirations when you were at Interlochen?
RA: I wanted to be like Oscar Zimmerman! I wanted to be like Domenico Dragonetti! I always used the bow. That’s part of the bass. I feel it’s a shame that most bass players today don’t even carry the bow. I mean if you’re a bassist, you got to have a bow. You got to use the bow.
FBPO: Were you doing anything on the electric bass at Interlochen at all?
RA: No, but I was playing jazz. My mother bought me a Ray Brown/Oscar Peterson record when I was 13, and that blew me away! And that’s how I started liking jazz. And then when I was up at Interlochen, I started to play around with different guys. I had a teacher named Robert Warner, who was a very fine classical musician. I believe he had been the principal of the Seattle Symphony. I also had one of the great educators of music and of the bass. His name was Larry Hurst. Larry was a great influence on me because he was a teacher who never scared me to death. Back then I played on gut strings. I’m one of the last of that era. I listened to a lot of Paul Chambers. He was one of my biggest influences. I met him when I was a little kid. I went to school with his son, Eric Chambers.
FBPO: How did you manage to get that audition for John McLaughlin? And you were how old?
RA: I was 16. Bass Player magazine did a story about that. I’m glad I’m talking to you, man, because I want to get some things straight. I was coming from Cass Tech High School in Detroit with this Czechoslovakian bass. I was on a bus and I got off at Seminole Street and I went by Michael Henderson’s house. And at that time, Michael Henderson was playing with Miles Davis. So I went by Michael’s house and I brought the bass. And he said, “Man, I know these bad guys up in Connecticut. They need a bass player.” So he put me on the phone and I played over the phone with this Czech bass.
The next thing I knew, four days later, I got an airplane ticket, my first airplane ticket, to go to New Marlborough, Massachusetts. Actually, I landed in Hartford, Connecticut. They picked me up in this old ’61 Cadillac limousine and I met Narada Michael Walden, the great drummer/producer. This was 1973. And I met a guy named Sandy Torano. He was from Miami. And we played together. I had brought my fretless Precision bass. It was candy-apple red. This is the one I recorded with John McLaughlin. So we were playing in this group. Believe it or not, the group was called the New McGuire Sisters. That’s crazy! I don’t know why they had that crazy name. We weren’t gay or anything!
I had a good experience there and then I returned home to Detroit. That summer, I went back to Connecticut and stayed on a farm in Canaan, Connecticut. During that time, Michael Walden told me that Mahavishnu was coming. Next thing I knew Michael had changed his name to Narada and he was wearing all this white stuff and burning incense. John McLaughlin came up there and I played with him and Narada with my fretless Precision bass. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the first musicians that ever recorded with a fretless Precision. John liked the bass so much that he invited me to join the group.
Now, on that same day, Jaco Pastorius came with his “bass of doom.” He came and auditioned after me and John gave me the gig because he loved the sound of the fretless Precision bass. And Jaco got mad and ripped all the frets out of his bass and put epoxy in there! I played his bass like three months later, man. You’d play G on it and sounded like F. It was out. It was so out! Jaco was a good cat, but he was kind of mad he didn’t get the gig. I also found it funny that he never had a case for that bass. He and Michael Henderson were very similar. They’d each walk around with the bass without a case.
After the audition, John said, “I’m going to call you to play bass. I want you to play.” In my mind I’m thinking, “Man, this cat is not going to call a black kid from Detroit to play. He’s full of shit!” So I went on home and it was a kind of snowy day in February 1974. I was living on the east side of Detroit and I got a call and it was him on the phone, Mahavishnu! I almost fell out! He says, I got somebody who wants to talk to you. He wants you to play bass with him and me and whatever. He said, “him.” Guess who was on the phone?
FBPO: Tell me…
RA: Carlos Santana! I’m 16-and-a-half and, you know, I worshiped Santana as a kid and I almost fell out. And Carlos said, “I’m going to have you play bass.” But guess what happened? I don’t know if they flipped a coin, but we all ended up with John McLaughlin. And I ended up flying to New York and rehearsing for about two months straight. We had one concert before we flew to London. That was with the Buffalo Philharmonic. And then we flew to London. I think it was the fall of 1974. I recorded with George Martin of the Beatles.
FBPO: What was it like performing with a music legend like John McLaughlin, especially at such a young age?
RA: Well, it was a blessing to me. It was a great thrill. I learned so much about music from him. He was a real disciplinarian with us. He made us play, man. We had rehearsals after the gig. He really worked on Narada and me to get us to play and I thank him for that. He worked our tongues out!
FBPO: What about the Jean-Luc Ponty gig? How did that come about?
RA: At the end of the Mahavishnu group, Jean-Luc Ponty kept came up to me and said [Ralph’s best French accent!], “You know, the group is going to end and I want you to play with me!” I was young and I promised I would play with him. I knew I would, eventually, but when the Mahavishnu group disbanded, I went out with Frank Zappa. That was in ’76. I did a Canadian tour with him. We did some recordings but I don’t know what happened to them.
I think I met Zappa on a show. We opened for him. And he was freaking out at how I played the bass. And what’s so funny about when I worked with Zappa [laughing] was that Zappa had me bring every damn instrument I had on the road! It was so funny. I had my bass violin with the Barcus Berry pickup on it, digital effects with it, I had an electric sitar John McLaughlin gave me. He had me play that [laughing]. All the shit I had on the stage! All kinds of basses! I was 19 when I played with Zappa. And what’s so funny is that Zappa was a character, man. He called me when he came to Detroit in ’76 because I was burnt out from traveling, you know. We worked so much. And I came to Cobo Hall and played with him right in Detroit. He had me sit in on stage with him. The next thing I knew, he was sending me an airplane ticket. He also put me on salary, like John McLaughlin did. Back then, it was different. They would put you on salary. I was part of his company.
FBPO: Tell me more about Frank Zappa, the man.
RA: He was a good guy. I got some music of his that I’m holding on to that was never played. I’ve never seen a human being write as fine as Frank Zappa, no human being. And I’ve seen some of the great writers. I mean the penmanship was like a computer, a work of art. It was incredible that way he could write.
FBPO: What kind of guy was he?
RA: He was a good guy. You know, he was a disciplinarian kind of cat. He detested drugs. He detested any kind of narcotic. If he smelled pot coming from your room, you’d be fired. So, I think a lot of the cats in the band used to have these big Cuban cigars and ended up smoking cigars instead of smoking pot.
FBPO: How long did you play with Zappa?
RA: I played with Zappa for about seven months and then I quit. And I did it on good terms, as a friend. I told him I was just burnt out. For the type of tour he was doing, it was like being in the military. It would wear you out. There was no time. It would kill you. We would work every day, just about. You’d get up in the morning at 7:30, go have breakfast, leave the hotel at 8:30, get on the plane – he had his own plane – and then you’d go to the next venue. You’d go to the hotel for 30 minutes, you’d leave the hotel, go to the sound check for an hour-and-a-half, then eat dinner right after the sound check, then go back to the hotel for one hour, leave the hotel, go to the concert, then, when you got through with the concert at around 11:10, you’d get back at your hotel at about 11:35 and that was your free time. There was nothing. No leeway. Even when we had a day off, we were having dinner together. I was burnt out. I told him I had to leave. And he was so cool. He was a good guy.
FBPO: What happened next?
RA: Now, dig this: After Zappa, I cooled out for a couple months and guess who I ended up working with after that?
RA: I worked with Herbie Hancock. I was in the Headhunters. I took Paul Jackson’s place when Paul moved to Japan. I met Herbie through Larry Young, the great keyboardist, at Carnegie Hall. We went to see Herbie and we ended up hitting it off. Herbie had been to some of our concerts and he had heard me play bass. Next thing I knew, I’m with Herbie Hancock. He sent me a ticket, we did the Santa Monica Civic and a bunch of other West Coast dates and Herbie was just beautiful. But, I promised Jean-Luc Ponty I would play bass with him. I really learned a lot from Herbie.
I spent a lot of time with Herbie. We did a lot of rehearsing. Wah-wah Watson played guitar, Bennie Maupin, Bill Summers and James Levi was the drummer.
FBPO: I remember it well. The whole V.S.O.P. thing.
RA: Yeah, we had a good time, man! I just saw Herbie recently. Herbie Hancock is one of the most balanced human beings I’ve ever met, as far as temperament goes. I think he’s one of the greatest humans I’ve ever met. I’ve never seen him angry. He’s so cool, man.
FBPO: What happened after Herbie?
RA: After Herbie, I went with Jean-Luc Ponty and played with him for quite a long time, about five years or something. And in between those time periods, I had a chance to play with B.B. King. I did a concert with B.B. King in 1977 for Gibson Guitars. I also played with Elliot Easton of the Cars and Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band. Toy’s deceased. I think he died in a plane crash. And I worked with Louie Bellson.
FBPO: That’s quite a diverse cross-section of musical stars.
RA: You’re right, it is. Because I play everything. I play classical music, theater… I don’t limit myself. I play everything.
Ralphe Armstrong, hangin’ with FBPO founder Jon Liebman
FBPO: Do you have a greater passion for upright bass or electric bass? Do you favor one over the other?
RA: Nope. You know why? Because I play them both the same, to a certain degree, like Stanley Clarke. Stanley Clarke and I have been friends for over thirty-six years. And we’re kind of similar because we come from the same concept. We listened to soul music and then we listened to the jazz and classical. Matter of fact, I have used Stanley’s bass on concerts. That’s how tight we are as friends. He let me use his bass.
James Jamerson was the same kind of fellow as Stanley and me and a lot of other guys who played both basses. They all played with the same concept. James Jamerson was a hell of a fiddle player. A lot of people don’t know that James Jamerson’s idol was Ray Brown. A lot of people don’t know that’s where he came from.
Going back to John McLaughlin for a minute, if it wasn’t for James Jamerson, I would have never gotten the job with John McLaughlin. I was sitting in this place called the Mozambique on Fenkell Road in Detroit and he was playing a Hofner violin bass. It was the weirdest sound I’d ever heard in my life. He was kind of drunk, too. He was playing all kinds of crazy fourths and long tones and playing in different keys and it was weird.
And he sat down and talked to me. He would always give me pointers, you know. He was the first person ever to tell me about the fretless bass. And I said fretless bass! I never heard of no damn fretless bass! And he said he could play it because had the technique. And when he said technique, he meant the technique of a double bassist. And that comes from Professor Yosef Herbes. He was a professor at the University of Prague in 1870 and he invented the twelve positions for the double bass. That’s why most of the great bass players, classically trained, never look at the fingerboard. I never look at the fingerboard. Very seldom do I ever need to look at it because I know where the notes are because I know the positions of the bass, what finger belongs on what note in what position.
That’s where Jamerson came from. But he kept telling me about this fretless electric bass. So I looked in the catalog and there was a fretless sunburst Precision bass. So I ordered the neck from Fender for $75 and put it on my bass and that’s how I got the gig. If it wasn’t for James Jamerson telling me about the fretless bass… That was all part of Detroit, man, we have a great history!
So after all those gigs with the NAMM Show, B.B. King, Elliot Easton and all those cats, I came back and raised my kids. And I started doing shows with Soupy Sales, Robert Goulet, Henny Youngman… I even backed up Phyllis Diller. I also played with all the Motown groups: the Four Tops, the Spinners, I’ve recorded with the Temptations, I recorded with Patti Austin, I did Curtis Mayfield’s last recording, Let’s Get Back to Living Again. I’ve done so many recordings, I can’t even remember all of them.
FBPO: Well, what’s keeping you busy these days, Ralphe?
RA: Right now, I’ve been traveling with James Carter, a jazz saxophonist. I’ve been traveling over in Europe with him. I’ve also been doing work with Toots Thielmans, Eddie Harris, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Grady Tate, Aretha Franklin, Ollie Woodson and lot of other artists. I’ve been thinking about compiling a list of everyone I’ve ever worked with. Sometimes I forget. You know, I worked with John Gary, star of Camelot. I worked with Lesley Gore.
FBPO: I worked with Lesley Gore.
RA: Yeah, isn’t she sweet? And guess who else I worked with? I worked with the Smothers Brothers.
FBPO: That must have been fun!
RA: Yeah, it was! I worked with Rip Taylor. I did a lot of the Vegas acts because I’m a union guy. I worked with Vic Damon, Diahann Carroll. I played bass with Buddy Rich one night.
FBPO: Do you have a story about that?
RA: I think the bass player quit or something.
FBPO: He probably got fired!
RA: No, he couldn’t make it, the cat. I had to sub at the Hyatt for him. And we got along great, man. I was a kid. I just played and he called me Ralpho and we just played, man. I had the big band thing in Detroit. When you’re from Detroit, you learn how to read and sit down and play shows. There’s a lot of pressure. You have to play what’s on the paper. You know that yourself, Jon, shoot! If you can improvise what’s on the paper, that makes it better for the conductor. Like Norman Geller. I worked with him with Diahann Carroll. And I’ve also played bass violin behind Stevie Wonder. Nate Watts played and I played. It was funny, man!
Ralphe is featured in this video from Detroit Bass Fest 2012
FBPO: With all those gigs that you’ve done and all those people that you’ve mentioned, you’ve accomplished so much in your career, especially since you started at such an early age. What else would you like to do with your career that you haven’t done yet?
RA: What I’m doing now is working on my recordings. Finally, I’ve got a lot of stuff in the can, putting out product. And it’ll be out this year. I’ve got one recording called Home Bass: Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Then I’ve got some recordings with Narada Michael Walden and last year I played bass with Sting. I played with Kevin Campbell, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, Gerald Austin, so I’ve been busy, man.
FBPO: It sure sounds like it. Well, what do you do when you’re not immersed in music?
RA: Take care of my knucklehead children [big laugh!]. They’re not knuckleheads. I have good kids and I raised them. I’m proud of my children because they’re going to school and they work. My son is in Michigan. He’s 22 and he can speak and write fluently in Japanese. He’s learning Mandarin Chinese also. My oldest son is an electrical specialist at Chrysler. He’s studying engineering. And my daughter just graduated from the Detroit Arts Academy and she is studying journalism. I’m really proud of my kids!